Paperless yet? I wish!

Schools are the least paperless of any institution and yet they have fewer excuses than any other.

As part of ZDNet's Great Debate Series, I had the chance to go head to head with Chris Jablonski on the topic of the paperless society. His take? We're right on the edge, with virtually ever segment of our society either already paperless or getting there quickly. I disagreed pretty vehemently, perhaps because of the amount of time I spend working with our public schools where, with rare exceptions, paper use is extraordinary.

There are plenty of areas where paper reigns supreme and, as I argued, a pretty massive cultural shift needs to take place to get away from our dependence on dead trees. For this post, though, I'd like to just think about our school systems which, in fact, have fewer excuses for "paperlessness" than virtually any other institution. The ways in which schools can integrate technology that cuts or eliminates the need for paper (textbooks, copies, handouts, flyers, parent messages, notes, you name it) astounds me every day. Here are just a few tools that schools have at their disposal if they choose to make the right investments (instead of, for example, buying the next round of ludicrously expensive paper texts or renewing their contracts with copier manufacturers):

  • Robust learning management systems: From Moodle to School Town, outstanding web-based tools make it easy to share paperless information with students, parents, and the larger school community.
  • Student laptops: Chromebooks have dropped in price to nearly trivial levels. Netbooks can be had for a song. Full-sized laptops, even, are remarkably inexpensive. Mobile thin clients leverage growing infrastructures in schools. You get the idea. Even if students simply use their own computers at home and labs at school, access to a computer that can be used in countless ways for instruction and educational materials is fairly ubiquitous. True ubiquity could be achieved with minor subsidies for lower income students and the right partnerships with Internet Service Providers.
  • Tablets: Tablet prices are dropping rapidly and, even if we still haven't sorted out good ways to push content to student tablets, all of them can access web sites and applications that contain necessary documentation, web apps, and any number of other educational tools.
  • Online groupware/productivity: Google Apps and Office365 for Education are powerful tools that promote collaboration, allow storage and presentation of every type of content that might be of use to students and teachers. All of this information can be made private or public-facing and is just a web browser away.
  • Wikis, blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools: Whether using education-specific web tools like edublogs or leveraging more general services like Wikispaces, the sheer numbers of communication and collaboration tools that are easy enough for every educator, student, and parent to use are overwhelming.
  • Virtual classrooms and social networks: Everything from Ning to WizIQ to Facebook (for the more progressive districts) to Adobe Connect allows for real-time (or near real-time) interactions and information sharing and are available inexpensively to educators.

And yet, students take their notes on paper (if they take them), get handouts from PowerPoint slides, take home notes to their parents about functions at the schools, and are handed printouts of electronic texts and materials.
Schools should be at the forefront of the paperless movement, teaching students to take their paperless habits out into the world. Instead, it's only the most progressive, well-funded of schools that are taking advantage of the readily available tools that support paperless education.
Nope, we're not there in society at large and we certainly aren't in education. But we should be. The technology is in place...we just need to see fit to invest in it and use it.